Viet Nam News
by Vương Bạch Liên
Foreign ambassadors in Việt Nam who took a recent exploration trip to Sơn Đoòng Cave have returned to daily life in Hà Nội with overwhelmingly positive impressions.
For them, the trip to the world’s biggest cave remains one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.
The ambassadors of Australia, Sweden, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Argentina participated in the weeklong expedition.
US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, Ambassador Phạm Sanh Châu (head of the Foreign Ministry’s Culture and UNESCO Department) and Vietnamese model-actress Dương Trương Thiên Lý, who represented Việt Nam in the Miss World 2008 pageant in South Africa, also joined the tour.
They were eager to pay for the trip to realize their dreams. They spent five days and four nights discovering the world’s largest cave, and they were amazed by its stunning beauty.
The trip, organised by the External Culture and UNESCO Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is expected to help Việt Nam promote tourism to Quảng Bình and the rest of the country.
“Everyone was happy with the trip. It is a really good chance to show foreigners what Việt Nam is really like,” Phạm Sanh Châu said.
Swedish Ambassador Camilla Mellander told Việt Nam News that the cave was “magical” and the most beautiful place on earth she has seen.
“My passion in life is travelling. I have travelled extensively from the Amazons in South America to the icebergs of Greenland, to the mountains of Nepal and the steppes of Mongolia. But the cave is truly the most beautiful place I’ve been to,” she said.
“The cave itself is so immense, enormous, that even when you are standing inside the cave and you are looking out, you can’t really comprehend how big it is.
“You have the feeling that you are in a place where you can see what the world looked like when it was created. You have the feeling of going back to the time of dinosaurs.”
She said she was amazed to see stone formations with stalagmites and stalactites, the underwater river and lakes, and the sinkholes and delicate flora and fauna, which combine to create a unique environment that offers spectacular sights.
“With the opening in the roof of the cave, you can see sunbeams shining into the cave,” she said. “You have fog coming in, everything is magic, it’s like a dream land. Some parts of the cave look like a ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie.”
Sharing those sentiments, Italian Ambassador Cecilia Piccioni said she was happy to realise her childhood dream of exploring beautiful caves.
“It was a real life ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’… like in one of my favorite childhood books — a journey where I discovered a hidden world,” she said.
“Realising how small the human being is compared to the almighty creative power of Mother Nature humbled me deeply and let me appreciate even more the importance of preserving her masterpieces.”
For Argentina’s Ambassador, Claudi Ricardo Gutiérrez, the trip was a unique life experience.
“To be in the caves was like to be in paradise, literally — amazing landscapes and atmospheres that leave you breathless,” he said.
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski said he was astonished by the site’s magical charm.
“You have to come here to see the real beauty of the cave. No image can possibly capture the real beauty of this extraordinary cave,” he said.
British ambassador Gilles Lever, who was inspired by Sơn Đoòng’s magical beauty, composed a song about the cave.
To conquer the cave, visitors had to cross 50 streams and pass through a 50km forest, springs and rocky mountains by foot with guides leading the way.
There were also 80m cliffs to climb, and an underground river to swim across.
In addition to a love for nature, cave explorers should also have the physical endurance and adaptation skills to cope with any potential difficulties.
Ahead of the seven-day excursion to explore the cave, the members had to undergo a health checkup and brush up on their adventure travel skills, said Nguyễn Châu Á, CEO of Oxalis Ltd., the operator of Sơn Đoòng exploration tours.
And a long preparation was required of the ambassadors.
Swedish Ambassador Mellander said that since the day she decided to take part in the trip five months ago, she started to work out on a regular basis. She began to go to gyms in Hà Nội three times a week, and run 5km on the weekend.
“My husband was very supportive. He works in Sweden and he helped me buy good shoes from Sweden and brought them back with me to Hà Nội,” she said.
Italian Ambassador Piccioni also took the training seriously. She worked out every other day with a personal trainer and completed her training with focused yoga sessions.
“The training strengthened my legs and shoulders to help with the trekking and the yoga helped provide me with a positive attitude at psychological and spiritual levels to approach possible hardships,” she said.
Argentina Ambassador Gutiérrez said he prepared by cycling because it’s good for strengthening the waist and legs. He also trained in the gym with different types of exercise and aerobics.
However, despite the preparations, some faced several difficulties during the tough trip.
Gutiérrez said he experienced fatigue and discomfort due to the extreme humidity, and he injured his foot.
“I have to confess that I missed my bed and my pillows very much,” he said.
Mellander also confided that everyone had wet shoes during the entire five-day trip because they had to cross streams. And on the second day of the tour, it rained a lot, so they were soaking wet.
“We started to appreciate basic things in life: dry feet, dry clothes, dry shoes, good meals,” she said.
But they never regretted taking part in the trip, because for them it was a unique experience.
Mellander said the highlight of the tour was bonding with her colleagues.
“Once we entered the cave, we lost contact with the outer world. The moment we put down our mobile phones, we had a lot of fun together,” she said.
“We were singing songs together, playing guitars. And with our guide and porters, we were playing cards games. We were laughing so much. We had a lot of fun,” she said, adding that she felt sad when she had to leave the cave to go back to work in Hà Nội.
The cave’s ambassadors
After returning to Hà Nội with lots of good memories from the trip, the ambassadors now have the strong desire to promote the cave to the people of their countries.
“I would tell Argentina’s friends that Hang Én and Sơn Đoòng Caves are must-go destinations that will be memorable for their lives and bring an unforgettable experience that will always endure in their minds and hearts,” said Gutiérrez.
“I will do my very best to be Sơn Đoòng’s ambassador to Italy,” Piccioni said. “Incredibly enough, I was the first Italian ever to set foot on Sơn Đoòng soil, and that gives me a huge responsibility to share its secrets.
“I wish to share my profound appreciation for the organisers, the Oxalis people are true professionals. We put our lives in their hands, and we always felt safe and taken care of, even a bit pampered. Their love for the cave and for their job is tangible and ranges from the wonderful care they took of us to the attention with which they collected every single piece of trash along the trail whenever they found it.”
Mellander said she was happy to see that the Vietnamese Government is preserving this cave in a responsible way.
Only 10 tourists can join one exploration tour, and a tour is organised only once every five days, from February to August.
She believes that this limitation can help preserve its pristine beauty.
She said it shows that the Vietnamese Government has recognised the uniqueness of the cave and that the fragile flora and fauna — where seven new species unique to the cave have been found — need to be protected.
“Việt Nam is acting as a responsible global partner that understands that this is a heritage that is more important to protect than making a profit,” she said. “The cave is a gem, and all people in Việt Nam should feel very proud that this is part of a UNESCO world heritage.
“Sơn Đoòng will stay with me for the rest of my life.” — VNS
Sơn Đoòng cave is the world’s largest cave, located in central Quảng Bình Province. It was found by a local man named Hồ Khanh in 1991 and was recently rediscovered in 2009 by British cavers led by Howard Limbert.
The name “Sơn Đoòng” means “mountain river cave”. The cave was formed 2-5 million years ago by river water that eroded away the limestone underneath the mountain where it was weakest. The ceiling collapsed, creating huge skylights.
The cave is more than 200m wide, 150m high and about 9km long, with caverns big enough to fit an entire city street inside them.
There are two sinkholes along the ceiling of the cave, which allows sunlight to enter and resulted in the growth of an entire rainforest inside the cave. The cave also houses unique plant species, waterfalls and an entire river.
Sơn Đoòng cave was classified as the largest cave in the world by the British Cave Research Association and selected as one of the most beautiful in the globe by the BBC news.
Since 2013, 800 visitors from around the world discovered the cave with exploration tours that cost about US$3,000.